The 2021 NASCAR Playoffs begin this weekend with the Southern 500 at Darlington as 16 drivers begin their pursuit of the Cup crown. Who are the Playoff favourites, and who will be making an early exit? Here are The Focus’s predictions.
750 package to start NASCAR Playoffs
The first three round segment, known as the ‘Round of 16’ takes in Darlington, Richmond and Bristol.
All three events will run the 750bhp high power/low downforce car package.
Should any of the 16 drivers claim a win in any Playoff round, they will immediately book a slot in the next segment.
Of course, given the likelihood of a timely caution or period of overtime throughout the 10-round format, making predictions for the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs is a dangerous game.
But based on what we’ve seen in the regular season, and historically, this is what The Focus believes will happen:
First to fall in Playoffs will be expected suspects
Eliminated in the Round of 16
This is nothing against the drivers named above. Indeed, all but Reddick secured victories in the regular season – McDowell claiming the his first Cup win in the Daytona 500.
The competition in the opening segment of the Playoffs will prove just too much for any of the four drivers named above to advance any further.
McDowell, Bell and Reddick are in the Playoffs for the first time.
Although Bell is at JGR, whose short-track 750bhp package game has been strong this year, teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr will have enough to see him off.
Reddick sneaked into the Playoffs by the finest of margins in the Daytona cut-off race.
The #8 RCR did not show bursts of pace needed to keep up the more fancied runners throughout the regular season – but it will be a good learning experience for himself, and also for Bell.
As for McDowell’s #34 team, he is unlucky with the scheduling of the Playoffs.
McDowell is a fine superspeedway racer. He has six top 10 results at Daytona, and two at Talladega – including third in the spring race.
Talladega is in the middle of the Round of 12. It will be a push for the plucky underdog McDowell to make it that far.
But all the logic suggests he will be among the first to take their leave of the 2021 Playoffs.
SHR has had a dreadful year, Almirola’s hail-mary at New Hampshire in the rapidly-decreasing light the only success.
Unless he gets a lucky break with a caution, Almirola won’t be troubling the Round of 12.
Champions to fall in the Round of 12
Eliminated in the Round of 12
The Round of 12 takes in Las Vegas, Talladega and the final road course of the season at the Charlotte roval.
It is a mix of the 550bhp package (Vegas), restrictor plate racing at ‘dega and the 750 machines at the roval.
Of course, making a prediction about a Playoff round that features Talladega is a brave thing to do.
Let’s imagine that it is a routine race in Alabama and one of the drivers to advance through to the Round of 8 wins it.
Busch, who will join Michael Jordan’s 23XI Racing for 2022, was lucky in the 2020 Playoffs.
A fortunately timed caution allowed him to win at home in Vegas, advancing to the Round of 8 – where the car probably didn’t deserve to be.
Realistically, he needs a repeat of that this time around.
The #1 has gone well on road courses this season, four top 10s at Daytona, Sonoma, Road America and at Indianapolis, but depending on that at the roval is risky business.
He will bow out in the Round of 12.
Keselowski to leave Penske without a second title
Roush Fenway-bound Keselowski has just nine top 10 finishes this season from the regular season, including one win.
For the man who has 220 top 10s from 439 Cup starts, that is a disappointing return in a lean Penske year.
Penske is good on 750 tracks, but Keselowski has an poor record on road courses.
31 starts has translated in zero wins, and just 10 top 10s.
Kevin Harvick is in much the same predicament as teammate Almirola in a torrid year for SHR.
He will just get through to the Round of 12, but it could go either way. He won’t get any further than the 12.
Alex Bowman is in a tricky spot.
Hendrick teammates Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and William Byron have all shown good turns of speed over the summer whereas Bowman has not.
Despite a career-best three wins this season, he has looked lost at times.
Owing to the consistency and strength of the others, The Focus’s prediction for Bowman to be the first Hendrick eliminee.
The Round of 8: The hardest 2021 NASCAR Playoffs segment to make a prediction for
Eliminated in the Round of 8:
The Round of 8 features Texas, Kansas and Martinsville – two 550bhp races followed by a 750.
Despite a strong, consistent regular season, Denny Hamlin did not win a race.
He won’t dwell on that, and is still in a good position with one of the faster cars on the grid.
But is it enough to make it all the way to Phoenix for another chance at that elusive Cup crown? The jury is out.
The same can be said for teammate Kyle Busch.
This year has gone a lot better for the #18 than 2020 (in truth, it couldn’t have got worse than it was).
He will have enough to make it to the final eight, but given Hendrick’s speed on 550 courses, he could be faced with going to Martinsville in the eliminator needing a win.
There are better racers than Busch at Martinsville from within his own team.
Joey Logano is in much the same boat as Keselowski.
The only reason the #22 gets the nod ahead of the #2 is his better career record on road courses.
William Byron has had something of a break out year for Hendrick.
Working with crew chief Rudy Fugle, he has 16 top 10s, including 11 on the trot from Homestead to the Circuit of the Americas.
A deep Playoff run will be good for the #24, but anything further than the Round of 8 in the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs is too long a prediction to make.
The Championship 4
Championship 4 contenders
Kyle Larson should win the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series title.
His form this season has been nothing short of sensational, as he took five regular season wins, including three on the trot.
He’s won the All-Star and the regular season crown.
Away from Cup, he has cleaned up at the Knoxville Nationals, and is arguably been the best racing driver on the planet in 2021.
The only doubt against Larson’s #5 machine is NASCAR itself.
A badly timed yellow could scupper him in the Round of 8.
After all, Harvick had an even better 2020 regular season than Larson did this year, but still didn’t make the championship race.
If all goes to plan, The Focus’s prediction for the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs is that Larson will emerge victorious for a first Cup title.
His sternest competition will come from reigning champion Chase Elliott.
Larson and Elliott have finished one-two four times in 2021, and are the best two drivers on the grid.
Georgia-native Elliott expertly won the last two races in 2020 to grab the title, so knows how to handle that pressure.
It’s just whenever Elliott has taken a step forward, Larson has taken two.
The 750 package expert
Outside the Hendrick stable, Martin Truex Jr is the best bet to deny Rick Hendrick a 14th Cup title.
There is a school of thought that, to win the Cup title you only really need to win three races in a season.
Win one in the regular season, then point your way through the Playoffs.
Come Martinsville and Phoenix, you win them and the title is yours. It’s what Elliott done in 2020, and what Truex can do this time around.
His 750 package game is strong. Truex’s #19 is dominant at Martinsville as anyone anywhere else.
It is the final race in the Round of 8 semi-finals.
If he needs to pull something out of a hat, he will.
He also took a dominant win at Phoenix with the 750 package in the spring. If Larson allows him a sniff, he’ll take it.
The 2021 NASCAR Playoffs Wildcard
Ryan Blaney is something of an enigma.
In the past, he has often been eclipsed by teammates Logano and Keselowski, but this is Blaney’s year.
As the #2 and #22 have struggled, Blaney’s #12 has hit a purple patch.
He comes into the Playoffs as the second seed, behind Larson, on the back of eight top 10s in the last 11 events.
This includes back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona.
His three wins also means he has three times as many as Logano or Keselowski and more than one in a season for the first time.
Blaney is peaking just at the right time. It could well be enough to see him all the way to Phoenix.
In the finale, all bets are off as it is a winner-takes-all showdown.